Search for extraterrestrial life gains momentum around the world

The Allen Telescope Array will scan the skies for radio signals.
The Allen Telescope Array will scan the skies for radio signals. (Marc Kaufman/the Washington Post)
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By Marc Kaufman
Tuesday, December 22, 2009

HAT CREEK, CALIF. -- The wide dishes, 20 feet across and raised high on their pedestals, creaked and groaned as the winds from an approaching snowstorm pushed into this highland valley. Forty-two in all, the radio telescopes laid out in view of some of California's tallest mountains look otherworldly, and now their sounds conjured up visions of deep-space denizens as well.

The instruments, the initial phase of the planned 350-dish Allen Telescope Array, are designed to systematically scan the skies for radio signals sent by advanced civilizations from distant star systems and planets. Fifty years after it began -- and 18 years since Congress voted to strip taxpayer money from the effort -- the nation's search for extraterrestrial intelligence is alive and growing.

"I think there's been a real sea change in how the public views life in the universe and the search for intelligent life," said Jill Tarter, a founder of the nonprofit SETI Institute and the person on whom Carl Sagan's book "Contact," and the movie that followed, were loosely based.

"We're finding new extra-solar planets every week," she said. "We now know microbes can live in extreme environments on Earth thought to be impossible for life not very long ago, and so many more things seem possible in terms of life beyond Earth."

The Hat Creek array, which began operation two years ago, is a joint project of the SETI Institute and the nearby radio astronomy laboratory of the University of California at Berkeley. Made possible by an almost $25 million donation from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the array is unique and on the cutting edge of radio astronomy. SETI and Berkeley share both the facility, 290 miles northeast of San Francisco, and all the data it collects.

The dishes also represent a coming-of-age for SETI Institute enthusiasts and its sometimes hailed, sometimes ridiculed mission. While their effort was long associated with UFOs, over-excited researchers and little green men, it is now broadly embraced as important and rigorous science, and astronomers and astrobiologists in an increasing number of nations have become involved in parallel efforts.

"This is legitimate science, and there's a great deal of public interest in it," said Alan Stern, a former assistant administrator at NASA who, in 2007, decided that proposals for extraterrestrial search programs should not be banned from the agency, as they had been since the early 1990s. The National Science Foundation had come to a similar decision a few years before.

"It was not a big or difficult decision to change the policy," said Stern, who invited Tarter in to describe her program to NASA officials. "The technology and science had advanced, and so it made no sense to block applications."

Limited search programs for intelligent extraterrestrials in the 1970s and 1980s abruptly lost their federal funding in 1992, after NASA proposed a greater effort. Former Sen. Richard Bryan (D-Nev.) led the charge in Congress, telling the Senate at one point: "The Great Martian Chase may finally come to an end. As of today, millions have been spent and we have yet to bag a single little green fellow. Not a single Martian has said, 'Take me to your leader,' and not a single flying saucer has applied for FAA approval."

The funding was eliminated, even though SETI listens for radio signals from distant planets and has nothing to do with Mars or with a supposed search for flying saucers or other space oddities.

But when NASA informed Congress that it was going to allow SETI to once again compete for funds, there were no objections, Stern said. Rita Colwell, who was director of the National Science Foundation when it approved a small-scale SETI Institute proposal in 2004, said several prominent astronomers endorsed the group, saying that the institute had become an important player in the field of radio astronomy.

Still, search activity by the institute and others is often criticized for its lack of results. It has been 50 years since astronomer Frank Drake first used a radio antenna at the Green Bank National Radio Astronomy Observatory in West Virginia to listen for extraterrestrial signals, and so far no messages have been detected and confirmed. UCLA physicist and astronomer Ben Zuckerman often lectures on what he considers the overly optimistic predictions of search advocates, and he argues that if the Milky Way were home to technologically advanced civilizations we would know it by now. "I think very strong arguments can be brought to bear that the number of technological civilizations in the galaxy is one -- us," he said.

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